ROCHESTER — What should a photographer shoot when he’s entrusted with the very last roll of Kodachrome?
Steve McCurry took aim at the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Terminal and a few human icons, too. Paul Simon, the crooner synonymous with the fabled film’s richly saturated colors, shied away. But Robert De Niro stood in for the world of filmmaking.
Then McCurry headed from his base in New York City to southern Asia, where in 1984 he shot a famous portrait of a green-eyed Afghan refugee girl that made the cover of National Geographic. In India, he snapped a tribe whose nomadic way of life is disappearing — just as Kodachrome is.
The world’s first commercially successful color film, extolled since the Great Depression for its sharpness, archival durability and vibrant yet realistic hues, “makes you think,” as Simon sings, “all the world’s a sunny day.”
Kodachrome enjoyed its mass-market heyday in the 1960s and ’70s before being eclipsed by video and easy-to-process color negative films, the kind that prints are made from. It garnered its share of spectacular images, none more iconic than Abraham Zapruder’s reel of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
But Mama Time is taking Kodachrome away, and McCurry feels the tug of nostalgia even as he loads Eastman Kodak Co.’s last manufactured roll into his Nikon F6, just as he’s done “so many tens of thousands of times.”
From that moment on, “there’s a certain amount of observation and walking around — exploring, hunting, moving,” McCurry said of his craft. “It’s not all about taking pictures. It’s about appreciating this world we live in for such a brief amount of time.
“I thought, what better way to kind of honor the memory of the film than to try and photograph iconic places and people? It’s in [my] DNA to want to tell stories where the action is, that shed light on the human condition.”
Betting its future on digital photography, Kodak discontinued the slide and motion-picture film with a production run last August in which a master sheet nearly a mile long was cut up into more than 20,000 rolls.
McCurry requested the final 36-exposure strip. After nine months of planning, he embarked in June on a six-week odyssey. Trailing him was a TV crew from National Geographic Channel, which plans to broadcast a one-hour documentary early next year.
National Geographic magazine is considering doing a spread on McCurry’s trip that would include a handful of images. All the originals are destined for air-conditioned safekeeping at the George Eastman House film and photography museum in Rochester.
McCurry relied on a digital camera to help evaluate composition, perspective and light, but choosing the moment to press the shutter was pressure-packed. Even seasoned photographers have a hard time knowing when “you’re going to get that one emotional component to the picture,” McCurry said.
His nerves were jangled again when he had to run the loaded camera through airport X-ray machines in Italy and Turkey. One security guard joked, “‘Oh, take a picture,’ which was kind of funny because we were trying to make every frame count.”
McCurry returned to old haunts in western India where “color is important culturally,” drawing on Kodachrome’s magical power to subtly render contrast and color harmony in depictions of Ribari tribespeople in Rajasthan and Bollywood luminaries in Mumbai.
His journey ended in July in small-town Parsons, Kan., the home of Dwayne’s Photo, the last photo lab in the world that processes the elaborately crafted color-reversal film. Dwayne’s will close that part of its business in December.
“It’s not a process like black-and-white that hobbyists could do in their own dark room,” co-owner Grant Steinle said, warning Kodachrome hoarders “they really need to get out and shoot those pictures” and perhaps shift over to newer lines of slide film like Ektachrome and Fujichrome.
In McCurry’s roll, one or two exposures were a little off, but he was pleased with the results. In one self-portrait, he posed next to a Kodak-yellow taxicab bearing the license plate PKR 36 — the code name for Professional Kodachrome film; in another, he’s sprawled on a hotel bed at journey’s end.
McCurry has a personal archive of 800,000 Kodachrome images he takes good care of. But in late July, he chanced upon a batch of 1969 and 1972 Kodachromes he’d put in storage in Philadelphia long ago and forgotten about. The discovery got him reminiscing about his days as a hungry photographer hopping from Amsterdam to Africa to Soviet-era Bulgaria.
“Not only was the color really good, but they were actually not bad pictures,” McCurry marveled.
“Imagine leaving digital images in a hard drive and coming back 40 years later. Would anybody be able to read that data? That’s the great thing about film. It’s a self-contained object. You hold the picture up to the light and there it is.”